He was 7 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed close to 500 pounds.
That's what the wrestling promoters always claimed about Andre the Giant. Just a quick look at him and you weren't inclined to argue. He was a freak of nature – of disease really (acromegaly) – for whom the word "giant" was no hyperbole. It's notable that for all the renown of his wrestling career before his death at 46 in 1993, he was never photographed next to Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both of whom were said to be in the skyscraping 7-foot-1, 7-foot-2 neighborhood. (I once rode on a hotel elevator in Toronto next to Chamberlain. No one could exit the car until he did first. He wasn't just tall, he seemed as wide as I am tall.)
In the fascinating, sentimental and moving HBO documentary "Andre The Giant" (by Jason Hehir) that premieres this Tuesday, actress Robin Wright tells a wonderful story about life on the set of Rob Reiner's "The Princess Bride", Andre's most famous movie credit. They were filming an outdoor scene where the temperature was a good deal colder than it looked through the camera. Wright visibly shivered. Andre put his gigantic hand on top her head as a kind of skullcap made of bones and flesh. It not only covered the top completely, it spilled over an inch on all sides so that it would keep her warm.
"A gentle giant," at the very least, to put it mildly, as both Reiner and the movie's co-star Bill Crystal agree. Andre's human plight so moved Crystal that he made a film out it called "My Giant" where 7-foot-7 basketball player Gheorge Muresan played a variation on Andre, a sweet, simple soul condemned by nature to living a life where there was no possible way to hide, even for a second.
Even in North Carolina, where Andre bought a farm where he tried to find something like the bucolic ordinariness of his pre-giant life in France, he spent most of his life at home and not out in the surrounding town (where they did get somewhat used to him whenever they caught sight of him).
What you'll learn watching "Andre the Giant" isn't just how moving a life can be when doomed by nature to freakishness. You'll learn perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about Vince McMahon and his shrewd takeover of the business of wrestling because of his clever understanding of how much cable TV would transform completely a showbiz spectacle that had always been operated by separate little geographical fiefdoms all over the country.
In Buffalo – where such giants of Canadian border bouts as Yukon Eric, were local legends – Ch.4's primal anchorman Chuck Healey was considered less a journalist than an announcer (the Brits call them "presenters"), which is to say someone who cooperated fully with the loudmouth promotional idiocies and trash talkings of professional wrestlers to build up box office for their bouts.
All of us – even those of us pre-teens who watched the ring spectacles of the '50s – knew it was fake. The paradox of its "sports entertainment" has always been this: While it was all phony and as choreographed as dance in vaudeville, some athletic skill was often required and real damage could be done to the bodies of the behemoths who made their livings keeping up with fiendish international performance schedules.
Yukon Eric did lose an ear in one bout when it went wrong. Andre, toward the end of his life, was close to a physical calamity. By the time his career was winding down, his back was so painful that his Wrestlemania 3 opponent Hulk Hogan, despite all the antic showboating, held his opponent upright during that legendary bout so the excruciating pain of Andre bending his back could be avoided.
Hogan is only one of the wrestling stars whose affection for Andre fills the film. You'll also see Jerry Lawler – Andy Kaufman's old nemesis from Letterman's NBC show – Ric Flair, Randy "Macho Man" Savage and other wrestling stars.
What you'll unfortunately hear nothing about is what I find the most fascinating single biographical tidbit about Andre the Giant. When he was a young boy growing beyond the confines anyone in his town could set, his neighbor Samuel Beckett used to drive Andre the Boy to school in the back of his truck because it was the only local vehicle in that countryside that could accommodate young Andre Roussimoff.
His life was as much pop culture mythology as agony. For all the legends of his prodigious drunkenness and flatulence, the hidden tales of misery are tragic. For instance, on 14-hour flights to Australia, his bathroom needs – which were impossible to meet on airplanes – required the setup of a curtain and the use of a bucket. We needed, frankly, to know as much about such everyday humiliations as we did about the business acumen of Vince McMahon.
As everyone knows, I personally discovered Al Pacino and gave him his first rave review. In all seriousness, I must confess I'm proud to say the first rave review I gave anyone was for the 1971 film debut by Pacino in "Panic in Needle Park," a script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.
Pacino's magnificent career has been all over the map in the years since. His second collaboration with director Barry Levinson (in their first together he played Phil Spector in a script by David Mamet), Pacino plays a weary, oblivious and horrifyingly unconcerned Joe Paterno whose legendary life as a Penn State football coach was exploded when word got out of his apparent avoidance of the subject of pedophilia by one of his assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky.
Levinson's film with Pacino premiered over the weekend and will be shown all over the HBO complex a while. Pacino in his aged weariness, has majesty. But even more impressive are a couple stunning moments – the scene, for instance, where one of Paterno's sons simply can't talk at all to the university's crazed football fans outside the house because every time he tries to talk they scream "Joe-Pa, Joe-Pa" at the top of their lungs and drown him out. It's a soul-freezing TV moment about the fanaticism of American spectacle obliterating all sense.
It's fascinating to watch the movie's portrayal of the agonies of the Paterno family during the first weeks of the scandal. The final line in the film will chill you for a long time. A triumph all around.
One of the weirder media anomalies I've encountered in the last year was this: Mark Zuckerberg is, as we speak, explaining to Congress how cheaply his company has held privacy all these years.
What is undeniably true about Facebook and news media last week was this: When the death of great jazz piano visionary and composer Cecil Taylor was becoming known Thursday, word of it made the rounds a full 16 hours before it was reported in a major American newspaper, even our "newspaper of record," the New York Times.
Taylor was admittedly no one's idea of a popular musical figure (the smallest crowd for any show I've ever reviewed in a big venue was Taylor's at Artpark) but he was – for everyone who knew music – an immensely important one by any definition. He was both influential and inimitable. The idea that Wikipedia acknowledged his death many hours before the New York Times got around to its obit, was puzzling indeed.
I find it nothing but odd that in the middle of Thursday night, there was no one at the Times to make phone calls and corroborate the notice of Taylor's death that was rocketing around the Facebook sites of musicians and music critics. If a full obit couldn't be run online, surely just a short paragraph could run about such an important death, until the obit could be run.
It was an odd moment telling us more about the relative places of social media and national newspapers in 21st century America than we might want to know.